There was an illusion, oh sometime around 14 years ago during the reign of Bill Clinton that certain behaviors by leaders no longer mattered, that we could parse one’s ‘private life’ (usually meaning one’s sexual proclivities) from one’s public performance. Of course, that was in the midst of the last economic boom, and many were willing to trade integrity in their leaders for some cash in their pockets.
But the times change, particularly when so many pockets are empty. The recent spate of high level adulterous affairs hasn’t been met with the same yawning indifference that Clinton’s was. Jonathan Edwards, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and now of course General Petraeus and General George Allen have all garnered resignations and reprobation. This is particularly the case in the latter two, given these men fell not only under the ethical considerations of political leaders (presuming some exist) but the auspices of military regulations as well. Perhaps the thought of our Generals engaging in sexual dalliances while boys die on battlefields is too much even for our promiscuous culture.
This is one of the great divides when Christians and secularists speak about ‘morality’. Atheists are fond of saying that Christians have no corner on morality, that one doesn’t need to believe in God to be good. More recently they seek to demonstrate this by highly publicized works of charity in order to demonstrate they can ‘be good without God’. When saying that, they are defining the ‘good’ to be those behaviors that have outward effects, not necessarily those behaviors traditionally understood to be good in Western society and by Christians. Adultery is one such behavior that seems to fall outside of the atheist prevue of morality.
New Atheist Richard Dawkins made this exceedingly clear in his essay on the subject, Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster . As he boldly asks:
Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place? Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected — or fear — that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is “cheating on them”. “Cheating” really is the word that occurs most readily to these people. The underlying presumption — that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being’s body — is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification?
Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?
Given his casual indifference to marital vows I guess we shouldn’t be surprised there have been three Mrs. Dawkins – he appears to be, to paraphrase the character Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, “always on the lookout for a future ex-Mrs. Dawkins”.
Dawkins’ assurances aside, adultery obviously has many victims. There are the bereaved spouses, the loss of trust in a community, and not least of all the pain of any children that might be involved. In the case of General Petreaus there was the opening of himself to blackmail and the communication of sensitive information, not to mention the damage to the trust the public had invested in him as the head of one of the most important national security agencies. If not in reality, people in powerful positions convey the perception of coercing those with less power into relationships with them.
For the Christian of course there is no distinction between public and private morality. Morality for the Christian is primarily an offense against God and His intended purposes for human life. In fact being moral for public purposes is considered hypocrisy, as Jesus plainly teaches concerning the Pharisees of His day:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. – Matthew 23:27-28
For a Christian being moral isn’t merely about what one does in public, but what one is when the public isn’t watching. At least for now our society, if not secularists, appears to agree with this standard.